Written by Jane Ponte
It is rare and sacred gift from the musical gods when an artist who has played a prolific role on the “Soundtrack of Your Life” comes to town and offers up an intimate peek into their creative process, their personal struggles, and their innermost thoughts on just about everything that makes them who they are. I received that priceless gift last Saturday at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck in Houston, when Mary Gauthier breezed into town for 2 nights of songs, and shared excerpts from her recently released, critically acclaimed book, Saved by a Song: The Art and Healing Power of Songwriting.
Accompanied by her partner of several years, songwriter Jaimee Harris, Gauthier took the stage and did not waste any time getting down to business. After thanking the audience for coming, it was time to do what Gauthier does best—speak her truth and shine her light into the darkness with humor, vulnerability, and empathy—all through her deeply personal songwriting—and now, through the tales of struggle and redemption nestled in the pages of her very first book.
As someone who has found inspiration, solace, and personal validation through Gauthier’s music and creative projects for many years, I could not wait for this book—and then for this show. I was thrilled when I first heard that she was going to do a book/songwriter tour combo. I wondered which songs she would include and how she would weave excerpts from the book into the evening. But after tearing through the first reading of this gritty and heartfelt memoir in less than 2 days, I wondered no more. Each chapter begins with the lyrics from a song that was painstakingly crafted as a byproduct of a defining moment in Gauthier’s career and/or personal development except for two songs–“Sam Stone,” by John Prine, and “Mother,” by John Lennon. Both songs impacted Gauthier’s life so intensely that writing a chapter about each of them and how they shaped her as a person and an artist was critical to the totality of the book itself. In its 13 chapters, every song included is crucial to Gauthier’s story, providing insight and depth to both her songwriting process and her journey as a human being. Rife with all the scrapes and bruises of the human experience, no topic is taboo. Gauthier courageously and generously shares her experiences—being born to a frightened young mother in an orphanage in New Orleans in 1962 and not experiencing any sort of bonding with anyone for essentially the first year of her life, her struggles with addiction, relationships and sexuality, her rocky beginnings as a fledgling songwriter, and facing (and making peace with) her fear of failing at the very thing that gave a voice to her conflicted emotions and helped her to understand her life’s purpose.
It was no wonder, then, that I was perched on the edge of my seat last Saturday, pondering just what to expect from this brilliant and revered artist who has consistently remained in my personal top 3 for decades. I wanted so badly for this show to be great that I was actually nervous. Suffice it to say that I was not even remotely disappointed; Gauthier confidently launched into her set with a breezy rendition of “Between the Daylight and the Dark” (2007) and set the tone for the magical night of music and camaraderie that followed. I sat back, basked in the love, and felt the music and stellar vibes envelop me like a warm blanket.
The rest of the evening elapsed far too quickly. Much like how I felt when I read Gauthier’s book for the first time, I found myself experiencing a twinge of sadness during the last song of the night, because I did not want this stunning evening to end. But I must say that as I drove home afterwards, I felt the sense that all was right with the world—because, in that very moment, it was.
Gauthier and Harris have both grown by leaps and bounds as pickers, songwriters, and all-around entertainers in the past year and a half or so. Prior to last Saturday, the last time I had seen them perform live was pre-COVID. Throughout the shutdown, I was able to keep up with them through “Sundays with Mary,” the weekly livestream they created to share on Facebook. Although the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to snuff the very life out of live music as we know it, Gauthier and Harris persevered and weathered the storm the best way they knew how throughout the lockdown–by offering a livestream every Sunday afternoon where they shared their music, observations, hope, and special guests with anyone who was lucky enough to tune in. I had regularly watched these performances, so finally seeing them together again at The Duck gave me chills. Not only was I ecstatic that they had pushed through to the other side of the pandemic, but it was clear to anyone who has followed them throughout this difficult time that they had only grown stronger as individual performers, and as a duo—both in music and in life.
Given the fact that I have been to more than several live shows of Gauthier’s over the years prior to this book release, I felt, in a sense, that I pretty much knew just about all I was ever going to know about Mary Gauthier. I’ve seen her with a band and as a solo act too many times to count. As a fan, I’ve watched her go through—and grow through—many different periods throughout her storied career. I’m familiar with every album she has released and have followed and supported the causes she has lent her time and her talents to. But these days, something is, well, DIFFERENT about Mary Gauthier. I mean this in the most complimentary way possible. I felt a renewed sense of lightness and clarity radiating from her. She is-if it’s even possible-better than she used to be. Something has shifted for Mary Gauthier, and I can’t help but believe that releasing this intensely personal memoir that took her 6 years to write has played a part in her metamorphosis. She performed “Mercy Now” (2005) with a renewed sense of conviction and honesty that almost moved me to tears. Her rendition of “Our Lady of the Shooting Stars” (1999) had an intensely ethereal quality to it that gave me goosebumps. Even “I Drink” (1999) seemed to come from a deeper place of confidence, wisdom, and gratitude. Of course, the perfectly placed notes offered up by Harris on lead guitar, coupled with her impeccable phrasing and angelic harmonies certainly helped matters all evening long–Harris is a gifted performer and a natural; she is a force to be reckoned with all on her own. But despite the hefty contributions from Harris in every song that evening, and aside from already having had a career that spans nearly 3 decades, it was abundantly clear that Mary Gauthier is just getting started. She has so much more to give, and I look forward to witnessing all of it. Whatever the future holds for Mary Gauthier, I know it’s going to be meaningful, fresh, and right on time. And if last Saturday night’s performance is any indication of what’s in store for Gauthier and her fan base, I’m all in for the ride.
~ Jane Ponte